“You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist”
― Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, To Alexei Suvorin, October 27, 1888
Chekov to me, has always been one of the writer’s writers. His insights on writing have become more familiar that his work himself, over the years.
Every prop in a scene would do well to pass the Chekov’s gun test.
“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It is wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” Chekhov in letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev, 1 Nov 1889.
He states the show-don’t-tell rule elegantly thus, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Chekov’s letters to his family and friends make enlightening reading. Brainpickings shares his reflections on the need for the artist to focus on their work and the qualities of cultured people in a candid letter to his brother Nikolai. More can be found here: Letters of Anton Chekhov to his family and friends
Many of Chekov’s stories, like Maupassant’s, portray complex shades of human character which can make the reader squirm at having to face unpleasant truths of life and the vagaries of human nature. But there are also passages of utter beauty and stillness in between grey scenes from everyday life as he wrote it, such as this one:
“And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. “The past,” he thought, “is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.” And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered. When he crossed the river by the ferryboat and afterwards, mounting the hill, looked at his village and towards the west where the cold crimson sunset lay a narrow streak of light, he thought that truth and beauty which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest had continued without interruption to this day, and had evidently always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly life, indeed; and the feeling of youth, health, vigor — he was only twenty-two — and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvellous, and full of lofty meaning.”
Chekov, The Student
My trysts with Chekov have not been many. While in high school, I read rapidly through his collected plays and stories, and replaced them next to the complete works of Maupassant, O.Henry, Saki and Katherine Mansfield on the shelf, where they remained with fellow authors of their ilk, rarely revisited.
Recently, I returned to Chekov’s work after reading the essay ‘Notes in a musical score’: The Point of Chekov’s Punctuation by Rosamund Bartlett. The critique skilfully brought out the importance that Chekov placed on the correct usage of punctuation marks in his work. He advises a young aspiring writer to continue writing ‘provided it gives her pleasure’, and that ‘she was still young enough to learn the proper and literate use of punctuation marks,’ which according to Chekov, ‘often play the part of notes in a musical score in a work of art.’ Bartlett refers to Chekov’s story ‘The Exclamation Mark’ of a meek secretary Perekladin who is humiliated by an impudent young man, who questions his education to use correct punctuation in official documents. Perekladin is a quintessential Chekovian character, an underdog who stays that way at the story’s conclusion, which leaves the reader with a feeling of incompleteness and despair – incomplete because the story has not come full circle with the protagonist becoming a hero, and despair because it is a mirror to what may often happen in the real world. The governess Yulia Vasilyevna in ‘The Ninny’ who cannot stand up for herself and the socialite Olga Dymov in ‘The Grasshopper’ (a story which has shades of Madame Bovary) who does not realise the greatness of her husband until it is too late are other examples.
‘Gooseberries’, the main story referred to in Bartlett’s essay is both exquisite and disturbing. There is a cinematic, almost dreamlike quality to description of the walk that Ivan and Burkin take through the countryside, their visit to Alehin, Ivan’s story about his brother and his own realisation of life which discomfits the listeners as much as it does the reader, as Ivan concludes,
““Pavel Konstantinovitch,” he said in an imploring voice, “don’t be calm and contented, don’t let yourself be put to sleep! While you are young, strong, confident, be not weary in well-doing! There is no happiness, and there ought not to be; but if there is a meaning and an object in life, that meaning and object is not our happiness, but something greater and more rational. Do good!””
The story can be read online here http://www.online-literature.com/anton_chekhov/1290/
I look forward to re-read more of Chekov, as a student this time, rather than as a reader.